Fortune has smiled with a full set of teeth upon the film version of The Hunger Games, and did not wait until opening day to flash the gleam. Had you devoted an idle moment, in the weeks before the release, to a search for online news of the movie, you would have turned up headlines such as “Bookseller Prepped for The Hunger Games Movie Debut,” “Hunger Games Feeds Big Rally in Lionsgate Stock,” “Officials: Hunger Games Boost to NC Tourism, Economy” and (for the really forward-thinking) “Will The Hunger Games Film Franchise Only Have Three Films?” The money volcano was going to erupt; crowds in the millions gathered to watch it blow. Nothing was left to decide, except for how many years the molten coin might pour down.
Which is an interesting question, given that the story concerns starving teenagers compelled to kill one another as entertainment for a captive public.
For those readers who have not kept up with young-adult bestsellers, I should explain that Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy imagines a dystopian future in which North America is ruled from a neo-Roman capital in the Rocky Mountains. The better to bleed its provinces, this capital (or, as Collins has it, Capitol) forces them each year to send children to die in a televised gladiatorial contest.
Collins’s political allegory is stirring yet vague, as if crafted to offend no party of book buyers. For readers on the left, The Hunger Games can be about an imperial power grinding down the working class; on the right, about localities in thrall to the dictatorship of Washington. Collins’s narrator, who comes from a coal-mining town in Appalachia, is similarly all-purpose. Young Katniss fulfills the current demand for female characters who are strong, independent, equipped to kill and greatly worried about whether guy number one really likes them or is just saying it, and what guy number two might think about that.
But however much the trilogy may double-talk its readers, it is a product of the book trade and so has limited potential for self-compromise. Only a movie (or rather a motion picture event) might call into existence the very dynamic that it pretends to criticize, and convert dismay over a spectacle of slaughter (which we all of course deplore) into a widespread celebration of riches and power. Here, then, was the one slight inconvenience that Lionsgate Films had to suffer in ending the buildup and finally opening the film. It unavoidably allowed people to judge whether the movie of The Hunger Games was a hunger game itself.
As one of those people, I may now put cynicism aside and say there really is more to this movie than the usual short circuit in the pop culture generating plant. I make the judgment with pleasure but no great surprise, having been rewarded for my confidence in the film’s writer-director, Gary Ross.
He has been coming out with only one picture a decade, but each has been memorable. In 1998 he directed Pleasantville, one of the few movies to have said anything smart about Americans’ fascination with the televised past. In 2003 came Seabiscuit, an exemplary drama about hard-luck cases in the Great Depression and the sometimes redemptive influence of sports. As this résumé suggests, Ross has thought a little about class divisions and the disillusionments of the young, about physical struggle and the uses of fantasy. He was the right filmmaker to direct The Hunger Games, and in a turn of events exceptional in blockbuster cinema, he got the job.
You see almost at once how he’s sharpened the story, without betraying the fans who want every plot detail in place. When the beaten-down coal-mining families of District 12 are summoned to give up their children, they must first watch a promotional film for the Hunger Games, produced in the style of a “Morning in America” political commercial and narrated in a familiar baritone, at once avuncular and bullying, that sounds much like Ronald Reagan but eventually proves to be Donald Sutherland. The architecture of the Capitol, which the book describes without specificity, takes on full fascist grandeur in the movie, complete with monumental colonnades and eagle insignias. (This being a technocratic American fascism, there is also a gladiatorial structure apparently designed by a student of Frank Gehry.)
Ross dwells, as might be expected, on the luxuries taken for granted in the Capitol, contrasted with the dirt and deprivation that prevail in District 12; but while he more than dutifully conveys the sense of oppression, he skips the solemnity. He gives you backstage glimpses of the televising of the Hunger Games—contextualizing scenes that are absent in the book—which relieve you for a moment of Katniss’s desperation and lightly debunk the battle to the death. (By extension, they demystify Ross’s movie, too.) And although he seconds the book in castigating the decadent pretensions of the Capitol, he outdoes it by having fun with the styles: the Gamemaker (Wes Bentley) with facial hair that must have been stenciled from the Book of Kells; the escort for District 12 (Elizabeth Banks) who gets herself up as a cross between a kewpie doll and Jane Avril; the TV host of the Hunger Games (a rampaging Stanley Tucci) with blue samurai hair and teeth like piano keys.
But these are peripheral attractions. The core of The Hunger Games has to be Katniss—and here, too, with Jennifer Lawrence in the role, the job has gone to the right person. Audiences who have seen Winter’s Bone know Lawrence can be utterly convincing as a grimy, battered, furiously determined girl from the sticks. In that film, she had to act the part. Here, she can mostly toss it onto herself—but although it’s ready-made, she wears it beautifully. Lawrence’s paradox is that she doesn’t look an ounce underfed as the supposedly famished Katniss—her face is smooth to the point of seeming babyish, her lips pillowy, her bosom prominent in a form-fitting jumpsuit—but her expressions are so vulnerably open, the catch in her throaty voice so affecting, that you instinctively fear for her, and take her robustness as a sign of the strength you would wish her to have. It doesn’t hurt that she’s paired in The Hunger Games with Josh Hutcherson (best known until now as the son of Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right), an actor in the mold of the young Michael J. Fox, who is sly and ingratiating where Lawrence is bruised, and looks like he could be snapped in two by her.
There’s heart in The Hunger Games, more horror than glee at the waste of life, a critique of televisual power that’s both amusing and honest and, in a nice fat role, Woody Harrelson. For a change—to quote the book—the odds are in our favor.
Terence Davies has filmed half a dozen memoirs, with different degrees of fictionalization, about growing up gay, Catholic and impecunious in Liverpool. He has made screen versions of a high-toned American novel (The House of Mirth) and one that’s not so high (The Neon Bible), and now, with The Deep Blue Sea, he ventures into the parlors and bed-sitting rooms of Terence Rattigan’s postwar plays. The settings, periods and sources of the films vary; the emotional key does not. Davies always returns to the tonic chord he struck in his great Distant Voices, Still Lives, in a scene where working-class folk in Liverpool wait out an air raid in the neighborhood shelter, and a little girl, doing her best to keep up her courage and theirs, solemnly steps forward to sing “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
Londoners sing too. They mostly do it in pubs in The Deep Blue Sea but also (in the protagonist’s memory) in an air-raid shelter. The recent devastation of the war, as well as its excitement, its loosening of social strictures, remains fresh to these characters circa 1950. Rubble outside, left by the Blitz, is still piled up on the shabby street where Davies’s camera discovers Hester (Rachel Weisz) standing at a second-story window. Rubble inside—from a shattered marriage, a hopelessly fractured love affair, a smashed sense of self-worth—is starting to crash down and bury her in her rented room; and when the film begins, she as yet has no voice to lift the threat.
She hardly even has language. “The words aren’t there,” Hester says in voiceover at the beginning of the film, struggling to write an adequate suicide note to her absent lover, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston); and for the next several minutes she doesn’t speak. Her voice is replaced by the fevered yearning of the soundtrack music—Barber’s Violin Concerto—as Davies floats off into one of those free-flowing imagistic reveries that are his special glory. As if witnessing Hester’s gas-induced dreams, we see her weeping surreptitiously by the fire in a cream-colored library beside her contented, unobservant and much older husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale); glancing down in embarrassment, then up with a smile of hope, as a glowingly silhouetted Freddie chats her up at a country club; standing at the bar of a warmly lighted pub in mid-afternoon, wrapped in the scarlet of a coat that’s as much as a confession, as she leans in for a first tremulous kiss with Freddie; lying naked on white sheets, pulling Freddie’s thighs tight against her own, while the overhead camera begins to swirl. The pictures swim into view and dissolve again so easily that they almost ripple into one another; and yet, second by second, they precisely match the alternating surges of rapture and anguish on the soundtrack, as if the Barber concerto were the primary artwork and the movie was something Davies had through-composed to go along with it.
The Deep Blue Sea never entirely loses this emotional and pictorial fluency, born of a highly literate artist’s love of crane shots, studio lighting and American musicals. (With its soft focus and contradictory tropisms toward murk and pastel, the movie looks as if it was shot in its entirety through a starlight filter. The opening and closing shots, as Davies explained at a recent screening in New York, are his homage to Doris Day in Young at Heart.) But the overall movement of the film is toward speech, with the initially dumbstruck Hester growing more and more articulate, and with Rattigan’s dialogue becoming more and more of a presence. This isn’t to say that The Deep Blue Sea reverts to staginess, only that another type of composition, the playwright’s, gets worked in beside the musician’s and the filmmaker’s.
Whether you’re carried along as this happens will depend on your being susceptible in the first place to Davies’s mood orchestrations (obviously I am) and then on your willingness to let their echoes sustain you, when something more strictly definable as melodrama takes over. A viewer today must stretch the imagination twice to care deeply about Rattigan’s play—first by agreeing to feel the plight of an outmoded type of upper-class adulterer (whose circumstances seem as quaint as the film’s ration books and coin-fed gas meters), and second by recognizing the old code, now falling into disuse, by which gay men in their long period of forced invisibility showed themselves to the world in the guise of characters such as Hester. I don’t think either demand is too much to ask of the audience. In The Deep Blue Sea Davies is as much a queer historian as was Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven, but without Haynes’s studied pastiche. The coded use of melodrama remains natural and alive to Davies; with him, there’s no gap to mind. As for the distance between the postwar Lady Collyer and a contemporary viewer, Davies has the actors to help him close it.
He knows Rachel Weisz is a sports-model actress, who naturally runs a little hotter than the conventional type and idles faster; and so he’s careful to throttle her back until well into the movie. She strains against the limits placed on her temperament—the demands to perform silently for long stretches, use a low voice when she does speak and refrain from advancing on other actors—until she’s all but throbbing with a frustration that reads as Hester’s. You feel the character absolutely has to break free, even if freedom comes in the entirely unworthy form of Freddie. The schoolboy humor, the coarse self-esteem, the range of indifference from casual to brutal—Hiddleston makes these traits so grating that you nearly forget Freddie is essentially pitiful. By the time Hester has plunged into full abjection before this man, you believe every emotion crossing Weisz’s face, especially when she cuddles up next to Freddie in a pub and tentatively, with visible fear, makes herself join in the group singing, just for a few bars. The tune she dares herself to get out: “You Belong to Me.”
The words are all wrong, but the voice is starting to be right.